Federal judge refuses to lift eviction ban

Warns Baker that pandemic is not a ‘blank check’

US DISTRICT COURT Judge Mark Wolf on Thursday refused to order an end to the state’s temporary ban on most evictions and foreclosures, but he indicated the pandemic is not a “blank check” to continue the moratorium indefinitely.

“This moratorium was said to be temporary,” Wolf said, according to a transcript. “What is constitutionally permissible for a limited period of time may become unpermissible at some point.”

Two landlords from Randolph and Worcester are challenging the constitutionality of the ongoing eviction moratorium, arguing the state is allowing tenants to basically take property without paying for it. They have concurring cases in state and federal court.

Wolf told attorneys Thursday that he would not intervene to lift the ban, something both plaintiffs for landlords and lawyers for the state took as a positive sign. While the written decision has not been issued, Wolf verbally declined to enjoin the overall ban against filing eviction cases.

The state declined to comment until there is a written decision. The governor’s office did not reply to a request for comment.

Rep. Mike Connolly, who authored the original moratorium bill, said Wolf’s tentative decision “affirms the principle” that legislators made the right call in approving the eviction moratorium.

“While we are currently awaiting the written ruling, my understanding is that today Judge Wolf indicated he would be denying every challenge that was made by the landlords against the eviction moratorium statute,” Connolly said.

Baker signed the eviction ban in mid-April, and extended its expiration to October 17. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recently issued a ban through the end of the year, something that landlord groups expect to challenge in court.

The plaintiffs are spinning Wolf’s decision as a partial victory. Even though the injunction was denied, plaintiff attorney Richard Vetstein said his clients are pleased that the case can continue on other constitutional grounds, specifically on court access and First Amendment rights, and constitutional property law.

“While he declined to enjoin operation of filing eviction cases, Judge Wolf made clear that while the Moratorium may have been appropriate as an emergency measure back in April 2020 when the pandemic hit us it may not be constitutional currently as the positive response to Covid-19 evolves here in Massachusetts,” he said.

Vetstein said it’s the first time any judge in the country has ruled against any part of a state moratorium.

Connolly called Vetstein out on Twitter. “I haven’t seen this much spin since Mike Boddicker pitched for the Boston Red Sox! In actuality the federal judge DENIED every challenge to the Eviction Moratorium law,” said the Cambridge rep.

He also defended a bill he is championing with Bright Rep. Kevin Honan, which would extend the moratorium to a year beyond the end date for the existing state of emergency.

City Life/Vida Urbana, one of many tenant rights groups who were involved in defending the moratorium, said it was encouraged by the decision.

“We are encouraged by Judge Wolf’s indication today that he will deny the request to preliminarily strike down our eviction and foreclosure moratorium statute, which is critical to protecting public health, especially in communities of color,” said Lisa Owens, executive director of City Life/Vida Urbana.

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

The organization said hundreds of people have called into its housing assistance hotline during the pandemic.

There is increasing concern that tenants who continue to be financially strapped due to job losses will part of a mass wave of eviction filings expected as soon as the ban lifts.